Caleb Hannan: ‘Screwing up has not made me an expert’
When freelancer Caleb Hannan published the now-infamous "Dr. V's Magical Putter" on Grantland, everyone wanted to talk to him. He received a barrage of emails and a flood of tweets. Some wrote to congratulate him on a story well-reported and a job well-done. Some wrote to excoriate him.
Hannan's story was about his experience reporting on an inventor whose golf club had become popular and whose company was touting its success and innovation. He reported on Dr. V’s invention, her company, and her background. He discovered that she lied about her qualifications as a scientist and that she fabricated an impressive resume. He also reported, with the same sort of "Can you believe this?" tone, that she was a transgender woman.
In the time between Hannan reporting on the story and it being published, Dr. V killed herself. It's clear to Hannan now that he probably should have stopped reporting and that the story should have been written much differently, if published at all. Grantland's then-editor Bill Simmons issued an apology, GLAAD board member and ESPN baseball writer Christina Kahrl penned a what-they-got-wrong note, but Caleb Hannan didn't speak publicly about the story. Until recently.
He still thinks about "Dr. V’s Magical Putter." He has thought about it every day for two years. He had been publicly silent about the decisions he made, the backlash he received and regrets he has as a result.
"I don't have any lessons for editors or other writers," he said. "All I have is what happened here. If people want to take something away from that, that's fine."
I talked to Hannan about his reporting in this story and the regrets he has about how things unfolded, and I've pulled out some ethics, leadership, diversity and reporting lessons along the way.
Know when to let a story go
The only way to handle the story he uncovered in a way he would've been comfortable with, Hannan says now, is to stop reporting. The instinct to stop is not one that's nurtured in this industry, though.
"That runs counter to a lot of things we're taught," he said. "It was ingrained in me very early -- do not be taken for a fool; if someone is lying to you, they have something to hide; if they lie to you directly, it's your duty to find out what they're lying about."
As he researched Dr. V’s background, he kept finding more questions, not answers.
"At every point, there was something more to investigate, something more to look into," he said. "There was always this next thing to do rather than think about 'Should I stop doing this?'"
Talk to other people. Listen to your wife.
From idea to publication, the story took about eight months, and Hannan spent the majority of that time trying to corroborate things and waiting to hear back from Dr. V, with whom he spoke to directly on the phone only twice. During that eight months, he had a lot of time to think about the story and to talk it over with his wife, who is not a journalist. When the communication grew stranger and Hannan found out about Dr. V's years-earlier suicide attempt, Hannan's wife grew increasingly concerned. She kept asking, he said, "What if she hurts herself?" But Hannan kept reporting.
"I think I told my wife that 'I'll be okay as long as I stay within the parameters of where I'm supposed to be in terms of reporting, and not lying to her, and doing my job.'"
He convinced himself that a source committing suicide was something that wouldn't happen. It was too extreme. He was being too melodramatic, he thought.
Considering the risks and giving them the weight they deserved might have led him to decide to stop reporting.
"What I've tried to reflect on is that in every story there's risk and reward, and every writer individually and every editor individually has to be constantly weighing those two against each other while reporting, especially while reporting on sensitive subjects," he said.
Educate everyone on your staff about diversity issues.
"What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself,” Hannan wrote in the original story. This sentence describes the structure of the piece and reveals one of Hannan's own misconceptions. Instead of seeing her as a woman who had been a mechanic, who was also transgender, his writing suggests that he saw her as having been really a man with an invented persona.
Seeing transgender people as impostors and portraying their assigned gender at birth as their true gender is one of the big mistakes in writing about transgender people. Hiding transgender status is not a deception. Fabricating a college degree is a deception. To discuss her transgender status in this way is to equate the two. Hannan says he was widely criticized about the structure of the story.
"Finally it hit me," Hannan wrote about finding out that Dr. V was transgender. "Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine." Many people argued at the time that this line was confirmation of his transphobia.
"What it actually was was an unconscious physical response to the fact that I had been very bad at my job for what felt like a long time and now I had a reason. Basic facts, things which would normally take five minutes to discover, had eluded me for weeks. Now I knew why."
The story structure was problematic, Hannan says, and he won't try to minimize that. It cannot be emphasized enough that this story is a tragedy that ended with the subject's suicide. Empathy and sensitivity seem as though they were stifled by curiosity and shock.
"It turned on that moment, and treated her suicide as an afterthought, and so in some ways I walked right into that criticism. As soon as we found out she had taken her life, the whole story should have changed. It didn't, and that was another big, big failure."
Hannan also said he was familiar with what it meant to be transgender but had not had enough experience with transgender people to know truly how it might feel to be outed. When other journalists call him for advice about writing about transgender people, which they do now, he redirects them.
"I say 'I know someone at GLAAD you should talk to.' I'm being glib, but that's basically it. If they have specific questions, I try to answer them," he said. "But I also reiterate that screwing up has not made me an expert and that they'd be better off talking to someone who is."
'Guidelines and checklists can steer anyone out of danger.'
Dr. V's story had a web of interconnected ethical issues that Hannan tried to unravel. First, Dr. V lied to investors about her background. Second, she hid her status as a transgender woman. Third, she attempted suicide in the past and was unstable. You're never going to run into the exact same set of ethical considerations twice, Hannan said, so it's foolish to plan only for simple situations. Following a process that forces you to ask important questions can allow you to let the important questions (like whether to stop reporting because the source is vulnerable) be answered and the seemingly urgent questions (like whether you can find a document or corroborate a fact) be put into perspective and perhaps delayed.
Editors, have open communication with freelancers on longer term stories especially.
In Bill Simmons' apology, he stressed that Grantland followed a process both in encouraging Hannan to pursue the story and in deciding utlimately whether to run it.
Simmons said that he was involved in the decision to greenlight Hannan's reporting and that he saw Dr. V as "the perfect character for a quirky feature about a quirky piece of sports equipment." He didn't think of the ethical issues around outing a transgender story subject during the reporting process until after he ran the story and faced criticism.
"Before we officially decided to post Caleb's piece, we tried to stick as many trained eyeballs on it as possible. Somewhere between 13 and 15 people read the piece in all, including every senior editor but one, our two lead copy desk editors, our publisher and even ESPN.com's editor-in-chief," he wrote.
But none of this hand-wringing made it to Hannan.
"I did not get that sense of trepidation or excitement or whatever it was on the other end," he said.
Grantland editors may have been deeply considering the consequences of reporting and publishing this story, but Hannan wasn't aware of any of that conversation until the backlash began and he read Simmons' apology.
"As soon as I read that, I immediately thought, 'My god, if I had found out that you guys were as scared of this as my wife was, that would have scared me, too, or scared me more than I already was. My editor and I, as far as I can remember, never talked about the potential that she would hurt herself because of the story."
As far as he knew, he said, only a couple of people, a freelance fact checker and an editor, had read the piece before it was published. Hannan said he wishes he had been involved in some of those conversations, wishes that he had known there were alternatives being considered. Some of these conversations may have been more apparent had he been a staff writer, had he been in the same building as the Grantland higher-ups debating whether and how to run his piece.
"There's a million and one things that come with actually being in the same office or being on the same Slack channel," Hannan said. "There’s serendipity in this that I'm sure gets lost when you're just some guy who has written a few short pieces for a site."
Would that have changed the outcome in this case? Not necessarily, but it's worth considering the way you treat freelancers, the way you invest in them and the way you introduce them into the culture of ethical decision making and diversity considerations you want to have at your organization.
"Dr. V's Magical Putter" is used now in a case study in ethics classes. Hannan sees his contribution to the discussion as necessary accountability, not bravery. And his infamy in the journalism world is something he tries to keep in perspective.
"I've had a conversation about this in my head every day for the past two years, since I started reporting it," he said. "I'm going to take that as the price to be paid for getting involved in someone's life who maybe I should have never been a part of, or maybe I should've stopped being a part of. I don't know how to react to it except to say that it exists and I'm going to try to deal with it as best I can."
Correction: A previous version of this story used alluded instead of eluded. It has been corrected.